On Jan. 9, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States had lifted a set of self-imposed restrictions on contacts with Taiwan. While these “Taiwan Guidelines” were barely known to the general public, they had developed a life of their own in U.S. diplomacy. What are the implications of this move?
The guidelines were initiated in 1978, when the United States broke relations with the Nationalist Chinese government on Taiwan, which claimed sovereignty over China. The guidelines governed contacts between U.S. and Taiwanese officials in the absence of formal diplomatic relations. They also restricted meeting places (no meetings with Taiwan officials at the State Department, White House or Executive Office Building), the attendance of formal events at Taiwan’s Twin Oaks estate in Washington and the level of officials who could meet with their Taiwanese counterparts. They also stated that the United States should not refer to Taiwan as a “country” or “government.”
Over the years, the guidelines grew into an intricate web of restrictions on the conduct of contacts with Taiwan. They also included a prohibition on visits to Washington by Taiwan’s top officials — an elected president and vice president, prime minister, foreign minister and defense minister — and injunctions on “symbols of sovereignty” such as Taiwan’s flag or use of the name “Taiwan” in the title of Taiwan’s Washington representative office, which is called the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office.
After Taiwan transformed into a vibrant democracy in the early 1990s, however, the relationship fundamentally changed. The guidelines came to be seen as increasingly anachronistic in dealing with a democratic partner facing an aggressive and belligerent neighbor. Over the past dozen years or so, several of the guidelines were gradually relaxed but formally stayed in place.
In particular, those who had worked in Taiwan’s democracy movement and helped the country make its momentous transition to democracy in the 1980s and 1990s perceived the perpetuation of the restrictions as a slight. Among the new generation of young democratic supporters of President Tsai Ing-wen, the sense of injustice was particularly strong: “We are a full democracy now. Why are we being treated as second-class citizens?” they wondered.
The unfairness was also in full display during Tsai’s “transit stops” in the United States. Under the existing guidelines, the United States would not allow Tsai to visit Washington to address Congress (as proposed by a number of senators), but did permit “transit stops” in cities like Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami on her way to visit diplomatic allies in Latin America. But while there has been a gradual decrease in the restrictions imposed — such as no public speeches or statements to the press — the treatment of Taiwan contrasted starkly with the fact that the White House was willing to roll out the red carpet for authoritarian leaders such as Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Rescinding these guidelines has been pushed for several years by a bipartisan coalition in Congress. The Taiwan Assurance Act of 2020, which was passed in December 2020 as part of the Omnibus legislation, contained a clause urging the U.S. government to significantly revise the guidelines. It was the clear intent of the U.S. Congress that the existing restrictions be rescinded, and replaced by a new set of guidelines reflecting the fact that Taiwan is now a vibrant democracy, and intended to “deepen and expand United States-Taiwan relations, and be based on the value, merits, and importance of the United States-Taiwan relationship.”
That the guidelines have now been rescinded is a welcome step and long overdue. It would have been better if this step had been taken earlier in the current administration, but better late than never. An advantage is also that the current administration will take the blame, and that the new Biden administration can start with a clean slate.
In line with the broad bipartisan consensus in support of Taiwan, the outdated restrictions will disappear pretty fast and make way for a new set of positive and constructive guidelines along the contours outlined in the Taiwan Assurance Act of 2020. It is therefore likely that the Biden administration will be happy to do without the old restrictions and move toward a new pragmatic approach based, as Congress put it, on the fact that “Taiwan is a free and open society that respects universal human rights and democratic values.”
The move will make interactions between the U.S. executive branch and the government in Taiwan easier. But does it change the fundamentals of the United States’ one China policy, the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, the three U.S.-China communiques (1972, 1978, and 1982) or the 1982 Six Assurances?
The answer is no. The basic structure remains in place: There is no change in the status quo, but the changing political landscape — a free and democratic Taiwan being threatened by an aggressive and belligerent China — has made it necessary that the United States (and other allies) are able to communicate with the freely-elected government in Taiwan at higher levels than was formally possible under the present construct.
Peace and stability in East Asia — and the Taiwan Strait in particular — can only be ensured if the United States and allies in the region can work closely together and communicate at all levels with Taiwan regarding the existential threat posed to a free and democratic Taiwan by the government in Beijing. Rescinding the guidelines is a welcome step in the right direction.
Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat. From 1980 through 2016 he served as chief-editor of “Taiwan Communique.” He currently teaches the history of Taiwan at George Mason University and current issues in East Asia at George Washington University. © 2021 The Diplomat.
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